Will Oahu escape the worst of Hurricane Lane?
That question was twisting in the increasingly gusty Honolulu wind Thursday as the powerful cyclone continued to draw closer to Hawaii’s most populous island, home to nearly a million people.
Some appeared skeptical of a forecast that indicated the storm would take a sharp turn to the west just before it has a chance to make landfall.
Among them was Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I’ve watched a lot of forecasts in my life, and thing about it is, any time you see a 90-degree turn to the west over the next 48 to 72 hours, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Long told reporters in a Washington press conference Thursday morning.
Central Pacific Hurricane Center forecasters continued to stick with the sharp turn Thursday night, saying the same upper-level winds helping to steer the hurricane northward are expected to gain strength with latitude and attack the system’s upper circulation.
>> Star-Advertiser Hurricane Tracker
>> Some shopping malls closing early due to Hurricane Lane
>> Flood risk rises in East Hawaii as Hurricane Lane stalls
>> Major thoroughfares on Oahu, Big Isle, Kauai closing due to Lane
>> HECO expects Lane will prompt power outages
>> Airlines issue travel waivers for passengers
>> Last-minute shopping a challenge
>> Mayor says slow-moving storm could cause major problems
>> How to pack a disaster preparedness kit
>> Pi‘ihonua Bridge in Kaumana hit with flooding from Hurricane Lane
>> Weather Channel hurricane expert has a message for residents of Hawaii
>> Hawaii residents stock up on supplies ahead of Hurricane Lane
Add in that the tallest mountains of Maui and Hawaii island could also cause some disruption, they said, and that will leave a weakened storm pushed out to the west by lower-level tradewinds.
The million-dollar question, as National Weather Service forecaster Robert Ballard put it Thursday, is, When will this happen?
Weather service meteorologist Vanessa Almanza said a few of the computerized hurricane forecasting models were showing Lane making landfall, which is one of the reasons why the cone of uncertainty has been rather sizable.
Forecasters said it would be a mistake to focus on the exact forecast track or intensity of Lane, and they urged people to remain prepared for changes in the forecast.
“Lane will come dangerously close to the islands,” Almanza said. “Any movement (in the forecast) could result in a landfall.”
But even if Lane’s eye remains offshore, severe impacts are still likely. Forecasters said residents should expect damaging wind, torrential rainfall, huge surf and ocean surge, especially as the islands sit on the most powerful side of the hurricane.
“This could be a hurricane that could change lives for generations,” weather service meteorologist Eric Lau told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Meanwhile, city, state and federal officials said they are prepared for what Lane has to offer, and they were urging residents to be ready as well.
“Hurricane Lane is still a dangerous and powerful storm,” Gov. David Ige said Thursday afternoon at a briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center at Diamond Head. “So we are asking all of our residents statewide to pay attention and listen to the updates and forecasts. Listen to your county civil defense and emergency personnel.”
As of 2 p.m., 17 of Honolulu’s 20 shelters were already housing 350 people even as the storm was still churning more than 250 miles away.
“Even though we aren’t feeling the effects of the storm yet, we think that’s a good sign. People are heeding the warnings and taking action,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said.
Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, state Department of Defense and U.S. Coast Guard all said assets, equipment and personnel are deployed throughout the state and ready for the cleanup that will follow.
At 4 p.m. the City and County of Honolulu activated the islandwide outdoor siren warning system, blasting a three-minute sounding to alert the public about the storm.
At the same time, service on TheBus was offered free of charge, allowing anyone who wanted to go to their nearest shelter to do so while there was still daylight.
A few hours later Hawaii island’s hurricane warning was downgraded to tropical storm warning status as Lane was tracking further offshore.
As Lane crawled northward, much of Oahu was shutting down. Nonessential state and county workers had the day off Thursday, and shopping malls and businesses were closing up as well, including lots of restaurants.
At Waikiki’s Queen’s and Kuhio beaches Thursday afternoon, there were plenty of beachgoers, including surfers who were taking advantage of some big waves.
Beach concessions were closed, but lifeguards remained on duty in mobile patrols.
“It’s a perfect storm for lifeguards,” said Paul Merino, lifeguard captain for South Shore operations. While the surf is tempting, many are unaware of stronger than usual currents kicked up by the circular winds of the storm. “My team and I are very concerned,” he said.
The veteran lifeguard advised people to avoid the beaches Friday, when conditions will be far more dangerous.
“Winds will be very strong, waves closer together, and with the high volume of water, people can be pulled into the water and out in rip currents,” he said.
At 5 p.m. there was encouraging news as all the islands — for the first time in days — appeared to be outside the Central Pacific Hurricane Center’s official cone of uncertainty.
Rick Knabb, hurricane expert with the Weather Channel, put a damper on that one, tweeting out, “In case anyone is celebrating the islands being outside the cone, consider: all islands on stronger, wetter side the whole time; a track just southwest enhances waves/surge onto south-facing shores; no change to risk of devastating floods and long-lasting power outages.”
Star-Advertiser staff writers Mindy Pennybacker and Dave Reardon contributed to this story.